The Mighty Drakensberg

South Africa's flag
Africa » South Africa » KwaZulu-Natal
May 27th 2017
Published: May 27th 2017
Edit Blog Post

Monk's Cowl National ParkMonk's Cowl National ParkMonk's Cowl National Park

Note the number of ther people around. Yep, none.
That silly idea I’ve always had about one blog per country unless I live there is becoming untenable as the list of countries I haven’t visited is dominated by some pretty distant, obscure, and little visited destinations. I will get to them; but it might not be anytime soon. Still, it would take somewhere pretty special to make me break this one blog rule for the first time. The Drakensberg did it. After three trips to South Africa I finally made it here and if I would have known how stunning it is I would have been here sooner. Anyway, I was working here for the PhD so that’s kind of living in a place, isn’t it? So maybe I haven’t broken my rule.

Incredibly coincidentally, or perhaps due to me steering people I would be working with towards particular dates, my ladyfriend would be attending a conference in Pretoria right at the same time as I would be heading back for my second stint of PhD fieldwork in South Africa (for the first stint see a few blogs ago: So why not get there a week early and do a bit of exploring?

Monk's Cowl National ParkMonk's Cowl National ParkMonk's Cowl National Park

We will title this one: "Pretending not to pose in the Drakensberg because posing is quite irrelevant when somewhere is as beautiful as this".

Our favourite type of exploring involves mountains so in South Africa that had to involve the Drakensberg. The dilemma was whether to go on a couple of multiday hikes or numerous single day hikes. Multiday hikes would take us well off the beaten path but would mean taking camping and cooking equipment so lugging large bags – not just on the hikes but also for the rest of our time in the country. We decided on choosing a few bases to do day hikes from, which also meant hiring a car would be more cost effective and we wouldn’t have problems of parking it in one place then somehow getting back to it after a multiday A to B trek.

There are a lot of potential hiking destinations in the Drakensberg and we chose three based on things like Google Images searches, an ancient Lonely Planet and reviews of places to stay. The accommodation inside the national parks can be really expensive whereas some of the other places to stay advertised as being in the Drakensberg are actually quite far away. The original plan was for one destination in the South African Drakensberg and the rest of
Limpopo fieldwork hazardsLimpopo fieldwork hazardsLimpopo fieldwork hazards

I don't think I put this on the risk assessment.
the time in Lesotho but that had to change when we found out at the last minute that Magdalena needed a visa – see the next blog for how we got around that one.

Royal Natal National Park

Rather than stay down in the national park, we stayed up on the ridge at Witsieshoek. This was definitely a good idea. The views were great in all directions and especially across to the Amphitheatre. There are lots of hikes that could be done directly from the lodge without having to drive. However, we mostly chose it for its proximity to the Sentinel car park which was about 20-minutes away up a sometimes terrible dirt road (though we managed it in a little hire car). The Sentinel car park is the start of the lovely then scary then lovely hike up onto the top of the Amphitheatre and is reputed to be the easiest way up onto the High Berg plateau. The scary bit I’m talking about is the infamous chain ladders. I’d read about these and was looking forward to a bit of a via-ferrata style climb to add some excitement. However, they were higher, longer
The AmphitheatreThe AmphitheatreThe Amphitheatre

Above Royal Natal National Park
and wobblier than I expected. It never crossed our minds to not climb them, especially seeing as a very large group of teenagers with big rucksacks had recently passed us who must have come down them and because we had read they get easier as you get higher, but I occasionally had a bit of a shake going on in my hands and knees. Up on the top was a different world from the lush green gorges and high cliffs that we’d been walking among and looking down on. Above the ladders, it is a fairly flat rocky plateau with little vegetation. There should have been a great view off the Amphitheatre escarpment, including of Tugela Falls, the second highest in the world at 948 m, however, we could see precisely nowt. The clouds were blowing up the valley and sitting just off the escarpment, occasionally blowing over the top reducing visibility to just metres. Our plan was to hike up to Mont-aux-Sources and when the clouds came in we followed a compass bearing, when they cleared we realised we had done a pretty big loop and gone up the mountain the long way round. Although, our route was much prettier than the shorter and direct route down. Going back down the chain ladders was again a little leg wobbly especially as there was a bit of a queue including several hysterical people who wouldn’t get onto the ladders. They may well be still up there… This ended up being the only hike we did in the Drakensberg when we actually saw any people. The following day we set off in thick fog towards Surprise Ridge and Cannibal Cave. When the fog eventually cleared, it was beautiful and we only saw three shepherds all day who tried to sell us some unidentifiable meat! I will point out that our map and route descriptions talked about paths down into the Royal Natal National Park valley from the ridge we hiked along somewhere near Cannibal Cave but we couldn’t find them. Every time we looked over the edge where the path should be there were just vertical drops so bear that in mind if you are out that way.

Monk’s Cowl National Park

Unexpectedly the photos from Monk’s Cowl have turned out to be the most dramatic and, although it’s not that we didn’t appreciate
The infamous Chain LaddersThe infamous Chain LaddersThe infamous Chain Ladders

Above Royal Natal National Park
it at the time, there were parts of this hike that were a bit boring but looking back it appears to have been entirely spectacular. Monk’s Cowl has lots of short loops that are well marked and last a few hours each that could be pieced together into a lovely day. We decided to get up above the marked routes onto the lesser frequented paths. Unfortunately, these turned out to be much less frequented paths so, while easy to follow, they were a bit overgrown and scratchy on the legs. We saw a couple of people at the very beginning and a couple at the very end, otherwise nobody all day.


It might look close to Monk’s Cowl, it is close to Monk’s Cowl, but the road in is a shocker. If I would have known it was that bad I wouldn’t have taken the little hire car in. But we made it, albeit going extremely slowly for the final 10 or so km weaving around boulders and stubborn cows. The setting is stunning and the hike up to Battle Cave was a nice change from our previous days’ hikes. There were no
The clouds mark the edge of the AmphitheatreThe clouds mark the edge of the AmphitheatreThe clouds mark the edge of the Amphitheatre

Above Royal Natal National Park
serious climbs, just little ups and downs along a river valley with a few stream-crossings thrown in though along a surprisingly overgrown path. We’d been in a few caves while in the Drakensberg to look for the San rock art and Battle Cave was by far the best we saw. The San Bushman are the earliest still-in-existence inhabitants of Africa, who used to inhabit these parts before being pushed out to continue their hunter-gatherer lifestyle now mostly in the Kalahari Desert. Their cave paintings are anything from a few hundred to a few thousand years old. Battle Cave is so called as, in addition to the cattle, rhinos, giraffes, and other animals as depicted elsewhere, there are a lot of people with bows and arrows seemingly having a big fight – though some reckon this is symbolism for something rather than representing an actual battle. Saw 5 people all day.

Sani Pass

Our final Drakensberg hike was up the pass from Sani Top so over the border in Lesotho. See the next blog for a tale of climbing Thabana Ntlenyana; Lesotho and Southern Africa’s highest mountain. Saw one person all day.

Cannibal Cave, above Royal Natal National ParkCannibal Cave, above Royal Natal National ParkCannibal Cave, above Royal Natal National Park

So called because of the people who were hounded up there then resorted to eating passersby.

The rest of the trip was mostly taken up with fieldwork in Limpopo; the same place as last time (near to Giyani). The work went well, we got a lot done, and it was just 30C rather than 40C like last October. Best of all, the worst drought on record had ended so the place was green and lush, unlike the barren semi-desert that I had previously experienced. Then some time was spent at WITS University in Johannesburg and the IWMI (International Water Management Institute) office in Pretoria and I had a few days to kill at the end. Why work from a guesthouse in Pretoria when you could work from the beach, I thought, and it would be cheaper. So, I popped down to Durban, nipped across to Umkomaas and had a few days working from a wooden deck with a view of the ocean. I should also mention that Umkomaas is where you set off from if you want to dive Aliwal Shoal. If I head to South Africa again in the near future for more fieldwork, Aliwal Shoal will be the subject of the blog as I will definitely head back to Umkomaas – the diving is truly spectacular.

Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


Answers on a postcard for this oneAnswers on a postcard for this one
Answers on a postcard for this one

A bird book and google have failed to identify it as yet.
Hiking up Mont-aux-SourcesHiking up Mont-aux-Sources
Hiking up Mont-aux-Sources

Above Royal Natal National Park
Looking up towards Mahai FallsLooking up towards Mahai Falls
Looking up towards Mahai Falls

Royal Natal National Park
The first view of the Chain LaddersThe first view of the Chain Ladders
The first view of the Chain Ladders

Look closely and you can see some hikers "ant-like" clambering up the cliff.
Salt dilution testsSalt dilution tests
Salt dilution tests

If you want to calculate groundwater flow velocity in a sand river, this is what you do.
Kudu mother and childKudu mother and child
Kudu mother and child

The north end of Kruger National Park is less than an hour from my PhD field site.

Tot: 3.105s; Tpl: 0.042s; cc: 11; qc: 29; dbt: 0.0187s; 3; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb